Bleach in His Face: Whistle-Blowing Rabbi Exposes Sexual Abuse

When, of a Friday afternoon in late November 1963, I made my stunned and miserable way home from junior high, my weeping mother greeted me at our front door. She wrapped me in her arms and, to my naive twelve-year-old disbelief, whispered, “I hope it wasn’t a Jew who shot him.”

Now, my mother was the granddaughter of New York Jewish leftists, radical unionists, members of the Industrial Workers of the World. She was, perhaps, the least traditionally religious person I knew. Yet, she was born in 1928. As a child, she heard the stories of the Eastern European pogroms against the Jews, and, as a teen, she was undoubtedly aware of Jewish genocide during the Second World War. It affected her. The sensibility she carried even as a secular Jew, her utterance to me that horrific afternoon it remains with me.

Some winters back Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg was violently assaulted by a fellow Jew in a longstanding Orthodox Jewish community, the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The assailant apparently stalked the rabbi for some distance and then, on Roebling Street at around noon, threw a cup of bleach in the rabbi’s face. Rabbi Rosenberg was treated at a nearby hospital and released; he’ll recover fully. 

What did Rabbi Rosenberg do to merit bleach in the face?

The answer goes to the sometimes-dark heart of what it means to live as an ultra-Orthodox Jew in Americaperhaps to live as a tiny, and often frightened, minority anywhere.

I first thoroughly understood what it might mean in 2000. I was the administrator in charge of secular studies at an Orthodox Jewish day school. While devout, the rabbis who taught theremy colleagueswere not what would be called ultra-Orthodox. They and their families lived to a significant extent in agreeable concert with the outside world. In no sense was their community cut off from the surrounding suburban or city life.  To this secular Jew, they seemed to me to have struck a fair balance without diluting their religious or civic responsibilities or commitments.

So it surprised me at first when my colleagues met Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman’s 2000 vice presidential candidacy with forceful rejectionand not without fear. I soon realized that my colleagues were more concerned by Mr. Lieberman’s pragmatic self-identification as an Orthodox Jew than by his modestly liberal voting record. Any pride that may have arisen from a religious Jew ascending to those political heights, any sense that ‘we made it,’ was overwhelmed by the fear that were Mr. Leiberman, as vice-president or as a potential president, to have any serious failures in office, Jews everywhere would bear the consequences. When the Court finally settled Bush v. Gore, even the few rather progressive rabbis with whom I taught sighed with profound relief.

One further preliminary before I explain why Rabbi Rosenberg was attacked in Brooklyn:

Several years back, I wrote a series of pieces on the now justly imprisoned Iowa rabbi, Shlomo Rubashkin, one-time manager of the world’s largest kosher slaughterhouse/meat-packing plant. When Iowa and the feds went after Rabbi Rubashkinfor, among other offenses, hundreds of violations of child labor laws, illegally importing Mexican workers to work and live under horrid conditions for substandard wages, and bank fraudsome in the American Orthodox communities petitioned widely and used the considerable political influence they had to try to free the rabbi outright.

Although his subsequent trial brought out a shamefully squalid sequence of wrongdoing, including the fact that when the FBI snatched him up he was preparing to flee to Israel, those same people in the same Orthodox communities worked hard to get his sentence limited to the minimum term. As it turned out, Rabbi Rubashkin was given his due, an appropriately long sentence in federal prison. (I’m pleased to note that a solid majority of American Jews, including many Orthodox Jews, were pleased with the results of the trial.) The forty-something may or may not get out in time for a granddaughter’s wedding.

Now, back to Brooklyn.

Rabbi Rosenberg’s attacker, the bleach-hurler, was just one of tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews who reviled the rabbi for aiding the Brooklyn District Attorney in  2012  in bringing to justice another man from the Orthodox community. The now-convicted fellow had promoted himself as a counselor to wayward Orthodox teens. He was then found guilty in a Brooklyn court of sexually abusing a teenage girl from the community over a three-year period. Rabbi Rosenberg maintains a web site and a call-in line for anyone.      

The whistle-blowing rabbi’s problem was that he violated a longstanding unwritten rule of many ultra-Orthodox communities: He did not allow the community to deal with the girl’s accusations insulated from secular authority. Not reporting abuse or other crimes has too often been the norm. Rabbi Rosenberg, by contrast, understood that whatever responsibilities he had to his religious community, his personal and professional responsibility to the girl who came forward to himand his civic responsibility to the People of New Yorkoutweighed the demand for insularity.

I do understand the fears of this tiny religious minority. They are my people, my fellow Jews, despite the fact that my Jewish life bears little resemblance to theirs. Yet my mother’s sensibilities, and my own, force me to understand these people, even while I cannot possibly concur with their behavior in these circumstances. I understand it in the way I understand African-Americans’ and Hispanics’ legitimate concerns about the one bad actor smearing the lot. Those two groups have not had the insularity nor, typically, the power, to demand judicial exclusivity and often get it.

The predator’s conviction and the girl’s vindication are for the good. Justice has won here. I celebrate the guts of this child and the courage of Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg who knew the risks awaiting him should the girl’s abuser be tried and convicted. As to criminal law, there is no Jewish religious dictum requiring any Jew to avoid secular legal authority. Ultra-Orthodox communities must show a broader understanding of what justice demands, despite their sometimes-justified fears of the larger world they inhabit with us.

 

 

 

 

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